ILM chief creative officer and senior visual effects supervisor John Knoll -- nominated for an Oscar alongside VFX supervisor Mohen Leo, animation supervisor Hal Hickel, and special effects supervisor Neil Corbould -- details the challenges of bringing the continuing saga of the Skywalker family to the big screen.
When Rogue One: A Star Wars Story exploded onto the screen in December it was almost guaranteed to be a hit. The previous installment, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, managed to gross more than $2 billion following its launch in late 2015, proving that an entire generation raised on Star Wars, (and now, their children), are still eager for more.
Directed by Gareth Edwards, Rogue One has grossed over $1 billion worldwide, and been nominated for two Oscars – best visual effects and best sound mixing – along with seven VES award nominations and a host of other critic and guild award noms. The Oscar-nominated VFX team includes visual effects supervisors John Knoll and Mohen Leo, along with animation supervisor Hal Hickel and special effects supervisor Neil Corbould.
After Disney acquired the Star Wars franchise from George Lucas for $4 billion in 2012, (along with facilities like Industrial Light & Magic, Skywalker Sound and Lucasfilm), producer and Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy saw a huge opportunity to develop smaller, slightly grittier standalone films set in the Star Wars universe, while still continuing the ongoing saga of the Skywalker family.
For more than 10 years, ILM chief creative officer and senior visual effects supervisor John Knoll had been harboring the idea of a film that shows us how the Rebels managed to steal the plans to the dreaded Death Star. “I’d known Kathy for about 20 years,” he says, “but it was still quite a unique experience to go up to the office of the president of Lucasfilm and pitch a story idea. I did about a seven-page treatment and went up to the office and pitched it to Kathy and Kiri Hart [SVP, Development]. I thought at least I’d done the pitch so I wouldn’t always wonder ‘what if.’”
A week later Knoll received an e-mail saying they were seriously thinking of putting his idea into production.
Having been at ILM since the original Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope in 1977, Knoll had served as visual effects supervisor on several of the Star Wars films, including The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. Over the years, he has been nominated for six Oscars, winning one for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006).
“Right from the beginning, Gareth wanted to make a war movie kind of in the mold of Saving Private Ryan, Black Hawk Down or Apocalypse Now,” Knoll recounts. “When he announced his intent early on that he wanted to do half of the movie with handheld coverage, it seemed like that could be really exciting in the Star Wars universe.”
Knoll helped develop the story and also has an executive producer credit on the film, along with his traditional role as visual effects supervisor. He explained that once the story treatment had been developed, the design effort began with co-production designer Doug Chiang in the Lucasfilm art department.
“He started to put images to the story treatment,” says Knoll. “What does this imperial facility look like? What does K-2SO look like? We’re going to see the Yavin Base more clearly, so how do we want to see that? There are wonderful bits of artwork. He has a big team of really talented artists and they got in and started exploring.”
Much of the preproduction concept art was being developed while the story was still being written. “They’d write something and it would generate this really cool looking imagery,” says Knoll. “Then as we moved into production, there’s a process of breaking down the shots and figuring out how much of this is going to be built as a set,” he explains. “Is there a location where we could shoot at least part of this, and what do we want to leave for visual effects? At this point there are negotiations that happen where you figure out what’s the appropriate approach to take in realizing a given bit of imagery.”
A fair bit of that decision-making process is based on previs, and Knoll explains that that there was “a pretty healthy previs effort on the show. Partly it was for Gareth to figure out narratively what he needed in order to tell a given bit of story, and of course, all of the rest of the departments used it to discuss and plan things out. ‘We should probably build that as a set piece... That should be visual effects. We could shoot this here. That can be a location piece.’ We would cut it up that way to figure out a shooting plan.”
As an extension of previs, Knoll brought real-time visual effects to the set, making it possible for the director to gauge what the final world would look like while he was actually shooting the film. The real-time visual effects would literally create the environment on the screen for Edwards to watch as the cast performed the scene.
Describing the process, Knoll says, “[Solid Angle’s] SolidTrak is a technology that allows us to determine in real-time where the camera is, then use that to drive computer graphic representation of what the part of the set is we don’t have. It gives you a preview on the monitor of what the final result will be.”
Of course, the film is a visual effects extravaganza, with hardly a shot left untouched. Among the challenges the VFX team faced was the creation of ships, epic battle scenes and a variety of digital creatures, as well as practical effects like pyrotechnics and creatures that could be filmed on set.
For Knoll, one of the biggest creative opportunities was depicting the Death Star in combat. “We’ve never seen it blast the surface of the planet, so depicting it like that is something new to the show,” says Knoll. “It had only depicted at full power where an entire planet gets obliterated immediately. Having this be a lower power blast that just does localized damage was an interesting opportunity.”
There are two scenes in the film where the Death Star fires – the planet Jedha and the planet Scarif. They’re both depicted from space, as well as from the ground “We have characters that witness it and see it the blast coming before it arrives. That meant that its propagation had to be slow enough to satisfy the dramatic purposes. If you think about releasing a huge amount of energy into the surface of a planet, a lot of the imagery that immediately comes to mind is nuclear bomb testing imagery, so it probably is not too surprising that it has some characteristics like that, but we were always looking for ways to make it a little bit different.”
“We had this idea that the blast penetrates deep down into the core, at least a few miles, and then a shockwave propagates up from that,” explains Knoll. “It’s almost like dropping a rock into a pond. The shockwave spreads out from that that looks like a surf wave, but it’s a wave of rock and earth.”
Animation supervisor Hal Hickel was responsible for creating digital creatures like the android K-2SO, as well as the space battles and ships in general, along with a host of AT-ATs and AT-STs (the two-legged imperial walkers). He explains that the work was divided up among ILM’s four studios in San Francisco, Vancouver, Singapore and London based on production requirements and what made sense in terms of workload. “We try to give each studio an entire sequence as much as possible,” he says. “Beyond that, I’ll try to distribute work appropriately to different animators [based on their talents].”
But from an animation standpoint, perhaps the biggest challenge was the creation of the digital humans.
Actor Peter Cushing, who played Grand Moff Tarkin, Commander of the Death Star in the original 1977 film, passed away in 1994. But Tarkin plays a key role in the film, with lots of screen time and interaction with other characters. English actor Guy Henry was cast to play the part of Tarkin, and motion capture was used to replace his face with a digital Peter Cushing.
In addition, Princess Leia makes a brief appearance at the end of the film, played by Norwegian actress Ingvild Deila using the same motion capture techniques. Carrie Fisher was 21 when she first appeared in Star Wars as Leia.
Hickel explains that the digital humans required a focused team of specialized visual effects artists, dedicated just to those scenes. “They really required a deep familiarity with the character, the character rig, and all the working parts of it, including how to deal with facial motion capture,” he says.
“Digital humans are just difficult in general,” he says. “But then when it’s a digital human that everyone knows and everyone is familiar with, it just makes it that much more difficult. If you’re just doing a digital human that nobody’s ever seen before, your main goal is just realism, but when it’s a familiar character, then it’s realism and likeness both together. Sometimes they can send you in different directions.”
Hickel explained that lighting the digital Tarkin was a huge challenge because the lighting style of Rogue One is very different from the lighting in the original 1977 film. “For instance, in some of the first shots we were working with, we were struggling,” he says. “It looked like a real person, but it didn’t look as much like Tarkin as we had hoped, and so we tried an experiment where we adjusted the lighting. We matched the lighting from a shot from A New Hope and we’re very pleased to see that the difference was dramatic.”
“With digital humans, the tricky part is there’s a swamp of opinions you get into, and you’ve got to figure out which things people are seeing as a problem are actually just the normal quirks of reality, versus something that’s actually a problem,” he adds.
The challenge of course, is not new. It’s something that animators and VFX artists have always faced. People have an innate understanding of how biological organisms move in the real world, and an ability to spot anything that looks “uncanny,” even if they can’t explain exactly what’s wrong.
Even VFX artists have this problem, and it can be very subjective. Hickel recalls that there were times when “everybody was staring at a digital character and trying to figure out what’s wrong, asking, ‘what do we need to fix?’ Teasing out what’s actually wrong from what is just a real-world difference, that’s where it gets really, really deep and tricky. You can quickly go down a rabbit hole of trying to solve a problem that isn’t really even a problem.”
Of course, not every effect is digital. When the original Star Wars film was made, there were no computers in Hollywood and every shot had to captured in-camera, on-set, using miniatures, matte paintings and any other trick that would sell the effect. In fact, the 1982 film Tron was disqualified from the Oscar for special effects, because the Academy felt that using computers was cheating.
Special effects supervisor Neil Corbould was in charge of the practical, on-set effects, including pyrotechnics. The battle on Jedha called for major preparation by Corbould and his special effects team, with somewhere between 500-600 “bullets” exploding in the walls. “Gareth wanted a slightly more realistic look to all the battles, so rather than just a spark, you get lots of debris as well,” he explains. “We tried different materials giving different colored sparks, so if it was hitting metal, you’d get a blue spark and hitting earth would be a yellowy-red orange. Our aim was that the characters would really look like they are in a battle, that the danger was real.”
For Corbould the biggest challenge was the explosion of the interior of the Empire base on Scarif. “When the platform explodes, there was talk about doing it outside at one point, but we decided to do it inside,” he says. “So, we had to create a big enough explosion inside a stage that wouldn’t actually blow the stage up. It was a brand-new stage and had only just been built, so they would’ve been pretty upset if we damaged it.”
Overall, although the film has a distinct style, it flows smoothly into the original Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope. And fortunately, a generation who grew up waiting for the next instalment of the saga won’t have to wait too long this time. Disney seems to be planning to release one movie per year for the foreseeable future. Next up is Star Wars: The Last Jedi, scheduled for Christmas 2017 release, to be followed by an as-yet-unnamed standalone film that tells Han Solo’s background story, tentatively scheduled for May 2018.
Scott Lehane is a Toronto-based journalist who has covered the film and TV industry for 30 years. He recently launched VRNation.tv -- an online community for VR enthusiasts.